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Delighting in diversity: Tagore, Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo

By Professor Bindu Puri, Academic Fellow

The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) had a quite picturesque view of how human diversity makes for a delightful world, likening it to a garden of varied flowers.

Given how the world has become a much smaller place and the contemporary world of humanity is now more diverse than it has ever been, one of the most important questions for our time is how societies and individuals respond to this diversity.

To better this question it is worth listening to what some of India’s greatest philosophers have had to say. Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) were all sensitive in their thought to the complex ways in which religious and cultural beliefs are interwoven in diverse ways in the lives of individuals and communities.

Gandhi spoke about there being three main areas in which the self comes into conflict with the other  – the religious, the racial and the colonial. The poet Tagore’s own thought reflected him being one of the most travelled Indians of his time, while Sri Aurobindo had set up the ashram (spiritual community) at Puducherry on India’s southeast coast, which had formed an organic collective life around religio-cultural diversity.

So, what would these three thinkers have said to the question of how we should respond to human diversity?

Quite clearly Gandhi’s answer in one word would be  ahimsa (non-violence). Yet to Gandhi this simple word involved a lot more than non-injury:

  • This is the path of ahimsa…step by step we learn to make friends with all the world…; and  For the seer who knew what he gave to the world has said, ‘Hate dissolves in the presence of ahimsa.’

There are two interesting things to note about Gandhi’s idea of ahimsa as a response to the often hostile other. The first is that Gandhi recommended that one ought to treat all ‘others’ as if they were one’s own “kith and kin”; that is, with love and from a position of sameness and equality (samata).
Gandhi had traced the source of such equality to Sri Krishna’s answer to Arjuna’s despondency in the opening of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita :

  • …the first chapter refers to the difference we make between our people and other people. Shri Krishna abolishes that distinction.

Indeed, Gandhi had argued that it was a human being’s inner most nature (swabhava) that involved them in a unilateral obligation (ekpakshi farj) to treat human and non-human others as if they were part of one family; that is, with love and a delight in the diverse.

The second point to note is that for Gandhi, responding to difference with non-violence as love was the only way in which one could arrive at truth. Any departure from non-violence would distance an individual from the truth/God they were seeking. Gandhi’s friend and correspondent the poet Rabindranath Tagore often spoke of how the world was coming increasingly together. Tagore wrote:

  • Human civilization has crossed the boundaries of social and national segregation. We are today to build the future of man on an honest understanding of our varied racial personality which gives richness to life … (in) sympathy and co-operation in the great task of liberating the human mind from the dark sources of unreason and mutual distrust of homicidal pride of sect and lust for gain.

Tagore used the metaphors of light and pilgrimage – the language of religion – to speak of the harmony between diverse people. Yet it is important to note that Tagore’s understanding of religion as lying in the unity of inter-relationships between people was certainly not a re-iteration of tradition. Tagore had a non-sectarian understanding of religion best described as “a poet’s religion”.

It is in this connection perhaps that it becomes important to examine Tagore’s idea of the surplus ‘vital and mental energy’ in individuals, which becomes key to Tagore’s understanding of the relationship between diverse people. Some insights emerge in the following passage :

  • Of all living creatures in the world, man has his vital and mental energy vastly in excess of his need, which urges him to work in various lines of creation, and therefore of the origin of art. Like Brahma himself, he takes joy in productions that are unnecessary to him, and therefore representing his extravagance and not his hand-to-mouth penury. The voice that is just enough can speak and cry to the extent needed for everyday use, but that which is abundant sings, and in it we find our joy.

Tagore’s idea of the surplus at once explains both the universal and individual aspects of human personality. While the surplus in the individual leads to unique self-expression in cultural and artistic ventures, the fact that all such ventures emerge from an essentially shared aspect of human personality, at once, invites all human beings to share in cultural/artistic achievements wherever these may be located.

Tagore therefore recommended friendship and harmony (maitri), as well as sharing as the appropriate response to diversity.

Tagore’s contemporary and friend the yoga guru (Mahayogi) and poet Sri Aurobindo had a slightly different answer to this question. He traced a delight in “the many-voiced human world” to a belief in the oneness of all beings. There are two points to keep in mind here.
The first is that Sri Aurobindo shared in the philosophical perspective of the Advaita Vedanta  Hindu school which advocates ‘non-dualism” or the unity of the individual and greater reality. The second is that this  oneness was to be realized as unity but not uniformity.

In a passage reminiscent of Herder’s idea of a garden of varied flowers, Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that there is no single, uniform way in which to seek unity between human beings:

  • … freedom is as necessary to life as law and regime; diversity is as necessary as unity to our true completeness … Absolute unity would mean the cessation of life, while on the other hand the vigour of the pulse of life may be measured by the richness of the diversities which it creates … 

These three philosophers then present varied and somewhat harmonious insights into how to respond to diversity. Gandhi advocates love for the different and equal other; Tagore seeks  friendship and sharing; and Sri Aurobindo takes delight in diversity.

It is then perhaps most fitting to end on a joyous and musical note from Tagore evoking rhythm and harmony between diverse cultures, religions and nations:

  • I am a singer myself, and I am ever attracted by the strains that come forth from the House of songs. When the stream of ideals that flow from the East and from the West mingle their murmur in some profound harmony of meaning it delights my soul.

Bindu Puri is Professor of contemporary Indian Philosophy at the Centre for Philosophy Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has engaged with the philosophy of M.K Gandhi and has published the following monographs; Gandhi and the Moral Life (2004) and The Tagore-Gandhi Debate: On Matters of Truth and Untruth (Springer, 2015). Her most recent monograph The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate: On Identity, Community and Justice (Springer, 2022) is currently in press. Professor Puri delivered the prestigious annual ‘M K Gandhi lecture on Peace and the Humanities’ 2017 for the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council of Ottawa, Canada.

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Institution: Jawaharlal Nehru University

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